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The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

by Sam Kean

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272999,409 (4.09)5
Traces the story of a renegade group of soldiers, scientists, and spies who were sent into Axis territory to spy on and sabotage Germany's nuclear weapons research and prevent Hitler from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
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Loved it! I read a lot about the atomic work during the war and this provided a lot of angles and insights I was not familiar with. Really added some good perspective to the urgency behind the Manhattan project ( )
  bermandog | Jun 12, 2023 |
The story of the Manhattan Project that produced the world’s first atomic bomb is well known and well-told. Without its success, the United States might have invaded Japan’s main island in bloody fashion. Less well-known is the story of how the nuclear ambitions of Nazi Germany failed. With an atomic bomb, Hitler might have annihilated London or New York City and changed the shape of the war. Their ultimate failure determined the course of the war in the European theatre. To fill in this gap in the historical record, Sam Kean offers an eloquent tale of the many individuals involved in forcing the Nazis’ foundering.

Entering World War II, Nazi Germany had more advanced nuclear science than the Allies. After all, they had Werner Heisenberg, who first explored quantum physics, and the so-called Uranium Club. They also had the most advanced rocketry in the world along with access to natural resources that could be used to split an atom. However, in typical Nazi prideful fashion, they made little progress after 1939 and were stunned when the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima after the European war concluded.

Of course, Allied efforts had much to do with this hardship. As brought out in Kean’s telling, a collection of enigmatic figures provoked German futility. Some sabotaged natural resources; spies looked to kidnap key scientific investigators; scientists used their friendly connections with German scientists to undermine efforts. Even an ambassador’s son (Joe Kennedy, Jr.) gave his life in the effort. This huge, multifaceted effort led to the Allies’ ultimate success as World War II ended and the Cold War began.

Kean excellently captures the lively personalities at play in this effort. Like any complex, multi-disciplinary effort, people with different backgrounds, skillsets, and outlooks had to work together to accomplish something big. None of these figures were typical conscripted soldiers. Instead, they embraced their oddities and used their quirks in service of the war effort. While the Manhattan Project gets most of the kudos, this angle of the story deserves more of a hearing.

Anyone interested in twentieth-century history will appreciate this tale. Those interested in the history of science (and particularly of modern physics) will also benefit from a read. Like any good historian of science, Kean goes into detail on the scientific principles while never losing the human dimension to the drama. As such, this book can demystify some of modern physics without entering into complex mathematics underlying the discoveries. Above all, it entertains while informing – and perhaps rewrites part of the script that founded our modern era. ( )
  scottjpearson | Apr 27, 2023 |
For more reviews and bookish posts please visit: https://www.ManOfLaBook.com

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean tells the story of how the Allies were attempting to stop the Germans from getting a nuclear bomb. Mr. Kean is a writer and author who specializes in scientific articles.

What happens when you recruit a bunch of rogue geniuses and send them to enemy territory to save the world?
You get a great story that is better than any fictional mind can come up with.

The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean mainly follows seven people, Frederic Joliot-Curie,Irène Joliot-Curie, Boris Pash, Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, Samuel Goudsmit , Joe Kennedy Jr., and Moe Berg – my personal favorite. This book weaves together historic tales, and scientific data to tell an exciting, almost unbelievable story.

What I especially like about Mr. Kean’s writing is that, like Mary Roach, he has the talent to explain complex scientific theories, in a simple manner. I’m no scientist, and I don’t wish to be one, but I could follow his writing and logic. I am not smart enough, and never will be, to build a nuclear bomb, but I now have a basic, very elementary, understanding of the science behind it.

I loved this eclectic group of well-meaning, extremely smart, amateurs taking on Nazi Germany. It was equally as interesting to read about the German academia wrestling with what they are being asked to do by a fascist regime.

The star of the book, a major league Jewish baseball player, Moe Berg is an intriguing character. A genius, who is as charming as he is smart. Berg was a famous baseball player, a well-traveled man, who sometimes got recognized due to his fame, but nonetheless was an ace operative.

This book is very entertaining, well written, and, as far as I can tell, well researched. ( )
  ZoharLaor | Jul 11, 2022 |
Very engaging story of the allies attempts to stop the Nazi's from developing a nuclear weapon. ( )
  ghefferon | Apr 18, 2022 |
Sam Kean gives us a look at the Nazi efforts to develop an atomic bomb in World War II in his book, "The Bastard Brigade". The sub-title of the book "The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb", might be a little misleading, since the attempts to sabotage the Nazi efforts didn't seem that significant, and was only one of several other interesting sidelines in the book.

Kean includes the story of the discovery of fission and how that led to an atomic bomb, and also introduces the reader to Irene Curie, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, and her husband Frederic Joliot. Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband Frederic were Nobel Prize winning scientists like Irene's parents. Brilliant in their own rights, it was interesting to learn that in addition to winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering various isotopes, Irene and Frederic Joliot did early research on the atom, leading to the discovery of the neutron, the positron, and fission. However, they puzzled over the meaning of their work, and failed to be credited with these discoveries. Others were quicker to recognize the significance of their work, and ended up with the prizes and accolades that went with those discoveries.

Regardless, once it was discovered that fusion was possible, a number of scientists recognized how much energy could be released by fusion of uranium, leading to research into making a powerful atomic bomb. Top German scientists were brought together into what was called the Uranium Club, to harness the energy of the atom and to develop a bomb. It was thought, and feared, that with the number of top scientists in Germany at the time, that Germany might be able to develop an atomic bomb, and use it against the British to force the end of the war in Europe.

While there were efforts to prevent the Nazis from being able to make a bomb, those efforts didn't prove to be very effective. The Uranium Club consisted of a relatively modest number of scientists, who were divided up in smaller teams to work on various parts of the project. It was some of their faulty research which complicated their efforts, such as not recognizing that graphite was a good material to use in making a bomb. Graphite actually proved useful to slow down neutrons, necessary to allow fission of uranium to occur. Instead, German efforts focused on using "heavy water" as the moderator to slow down neutrons. However, heavy water was only being produced in one facility in Europe, in Norway, and the amount being produced was very small.

British military and Norwegian freedom fighters did attempt to sabotage the heavy water facility, but their efforts either failed or proved ineffective. Despite failed efforts to destroy Germany's supply of heavy water, the bulk of the German supply ended up being lost when a ferry transporting the heavy water was sunk. Other efforts to sabotage the Nazi bomb making effort consisted of planning to kidnap senior German scientists. However, this never came to pass.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor of the CIA, did put efforts into sabotage Nazi bomb making efforts. The OSS, headed by "Wild Bill" Donovan, enlisted the help of former major league baseball player Mo Berg in this effort. Berg was an anomaly as a baseball player, a Princeton University graduate, master of a half dozen or more languages, and who earned a law degree while still playing ball. His ability to get people to feel comfortable with him, and his fluency in several European languages made him a good candidate to work undercover for the OSS and attempt to locate German scientists who might be working on an atomic bomb. He was quite a character, and his exploits as described in the book, even if ineffective, were entertaining.

Other individuals who Kean includes in the book were Ambassador Joe Kennedy and his sons Joe and Jack. Jack Kennedy was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the War, and was celebrated as a hero in the Pacific for saving his crew after his PT Boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. His older brother Joe was described as being jealous of his younger brother's medals, and was also somewhat of a glory hound in the War. Ultimately, after volunteering for a dangerous flying mission over France, Joe was killed. What the stories of the Kennedys had to do with the Nazi bomb making efforts seemed mostly unrelated, but I did learn several new things about the brothers. ( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
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Traces the story of a renegade group of soldiers, scientists, and spies who were sent into Axis territory to spy on and sabotage Germany's nuclear weapons research and prevent Hitler from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

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